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princeton university press the novel volume 1 history geography and culture may 2006

Edited by Franco Moretti
Editorial Board: Ernesto Franco, Fredric Jameson, Abdelfattah Kilito,
Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo, and Mario Vargas Llosa
Franco Moretti
Princeton University Press
Copyright 2006 © by Princeton University Press
Published by Princeton University Press, 41 William Street,

Princeton, New Jersey 08540
In the United Kingdom: Princeton University Press, 3 Market Place,
Woodstock, Oxfordshire OX20 1SY
This book is a selection from the original five-volume work, published
in Italian under the title Il romanzo, copyright © 2001–2003 by Giulio
Einaudi editore s.p.a., Turin. Citations in these essays reflect the
substantive content of those in the Italian edition.
All Rights Reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Romanzo. English. Selections.
The novel / edited by Franco Moretti.
p. cm.
A selection from the original five-volume work, published in Torino by
G. Einaudi editore, c2001–c2003.
Includes bibliographical references and indexes.
Contents: v. 1. History, geography, and culture — v. 2. Forms and themes.
ISBN-13: 978-0-691-04947-2 (cl : v. 1 : alk. paper)
ISBN-10: 0-691-04947-5 (cl : v. 1 : alk. paper)
ISBN-13: 978-0-691-04948-9 (cl : v. 2 : alk. paper)
ISBN-10: 0-691-04948-3 (cl : v. 2 : alk. paper)
1. Fiction—History and criticism. I. Moretti, Franco, 1950– II. Title.
PN3321.R66 2006
809.3—dc22 2005051473
British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available
This book has been composed in Simoncini Garamond
Printed on acid-free paper. ∞
Printed in the United States of America
ix On The Novel
3 From Oral to Written: An Anthropological Breakthrough
in Storytelling
37 The Control of the Imagination and the Novel
69 Historiography and Fiction in Chinese Culture

94 The Novel on Trial
125 The Ancient Greek Novel: A Single Model
or a Plurality of Forms?
156 Medieval French Romance
181 The Novel in Premodern China
Critical Apparatus: The Semantic Field of “Narrative”
217 Stefano Levi Della Torre, Midrash
225 Maurizio Bettini, Mythos/Fabula
241 Adriana Boscaro, Monogatari
249 Judith T. Zeitlin, Xiaoshuo
262 Abdelfattah Kilito, Qis
269 Piero Boitani, Romance
283 Maria Di Salvo, Povest’
291 The Short, Happy Life of the Novel in Spain
313 Forms of Popular Narrative in France and England: 1700–1900
336 The Rise of Fictionality
364 Serious Century
401 The Ruse of the Russian Novel
Critical Apparatus: The Market for Novels—
Some Statistical Profiles
429 James Raven, Britain, 1750–1830
455 John Austin, United States, 1780–1850
466 Giovanni Ragone, Italy, 1815–1870
479 Elisa Martí-López and Mario Santana, Spain, 1843–1900
495 Priya Joshi, India, 1850–1900
509 Jonathan Zwicker, Japan, 1850–1900
521 Wendy Griswold, Nigeria, 1950–2000
531 The Sign of the Voice: Orality and Writing
in the United States
553 The Long Nineteenth Century of the Japanese Novel
596 Epic and Novel in India
632 The Novel of a Continent: Latin America
667 The Extroverted African Novel
703 The Novelists’ International
726 Fecundities of the Unexpected: Magical Realism, Narrative,
and History
Readings: Traditions in Contact
759 Abdelfattah Kilito, Al-Sa¯q ‘ala¯ al-sa¯q fı¯m a¯ huwa al-Fa¯rya¯q
mad Fa¯ris Shidya¯q, Paris, 1855)
766 Norma Field, Drifting Clouds (Futabatei Shimei, Japan, 1887–1889)
775 Jale Parla, A Carriage Affair (Recaizade Mahmut Ekrem, Turkey, 1896)
781 Jongyon Hwang, The Heartless (Yi Kwangsu, Korea, 1917)
786 M. Keith Booker, Chaka (Thomas Mofolo, South Africa, 1925)
794 M. R. Ghanoonparvar, The Blind Owl (Sadeq Hedayat, Iran, 1941)
Readings: Americas
805 Alessandro Portelli, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe,
United States, 1852)
816 Roberto Schwarz, Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (J. M. Machado
de Assis, Brazil, 1880)
841 Jonathan Arac, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain,
United States, 1884)
855 Ernesto Franco, Pedro Páramo (Juan Rulfo, Mexico, 1955)
862 Stephanie Merrim, Grande Sertão: Veredas (João Guimarães Rosa,
Brazil, 1956)
870 José Miguel Oviedo, The Death of Artemio Cruz (Carlos Fuentes,
Mexico, 1962)
876 Clarisse Zimra, Lone Sun (Daniel Maximin, Guadeloupe, 1981)
886 Alessandro Portelli, Beloved (Toni Morrison, United States, 1987)
893 Contributors
897 Author Index
907 Works Cited Index
On The Novel
Countless are the novels of the world. So, how can we speak of them? The
Novel combines two intersecting perspectives. First, the novel is for us a
great anthropological force, which has turned reading into a pleasure and
redefined the sense of reality, the meaning of individual existence, the per-
ception of time and of language. The novel as culture, then, but certainly
also as form, or rather forms, plural, because in the two thousand years of its
history one encounters the strangest creations, and high and low trade
places at every opportunity, as the borders of literature are continuously, un-
predictably expanded. At times, this endless flexibility borders on chaos.
But thanks to it, the novel becomes the first truly planetary form: a phoenix
always ready to take flight in a new direction, and to find the right language
for the next generation of readers.
Two perspectives on the novel, then; and two volumes. History, Geography,
and Culture is mostly a look from the outside; Forms and Themes, from the
inside. But like convex and concave in a Borromini façade, inside and out-
side are here part of the same design, because the novel is always commodity
and artwork at once: a major economic investment and an ambitious aes-
thetic form (for German romanticism, the most universal of all). Don’t be
surprised, then, if an epistemological analysis of “fiction” slides into a dis-
cussion of credit and paper money or if a statistical study of the Japanese
book market becomes a reflection on narrative morphology. This is the way
of the novel—and of The Novel.
A history that begins in the Hellenistic world and continues today. A geog-
raphy that overlaps with the advent of world literature. A morphology
that ranges euphorically from war stories, pornography, and melodrama, to
syntactic labyrinths, metaphoric prose, and broken plot lines. To make the
literary field longer, larger, and deeper: this is, in a nutshell, the project of
The Novel (and of its Italian five-volume original). And then, project within
the project, to take a second look at the new panorama—and estrange it.
The essay on the Spanish Golden Age develops its historical argument, and
then: “Wait. Why was that magical season so short?” Stating the “facts,”
then turning them into “problems.” At the beginning of the historical arc,
we wonder whether to speak of “the” Greek novel—or of a cluster of inde-
pendent forms. At the opposite end, we explain why it is that the best-
known African novels are not written for African readers. And so on. The
more we learn about the history of the novel, the stranger it becomes.
To make sense of this new history, The Novel uses three different registers.
Essays, about twenty per volume, are works of abstraction, synthesis, and
comparative research: they establish the great periodizations that segment
the flow of time, and the conceptual architecture that reveals its unity.
“Readings” are shorter pieces, unified by a common question, and devoted
to the close analysis of individual texts: Aethiopica, Le Grand Cyrus, The
War of the Worlds (and more) as so many prototypes of novelistic subgenres;
Malte Laurids Brigge, Macunaíma, The Making of Americans (and more) as
typical modern experiments. Finally, the sections entitled “Critical Appara-
tus” study the novel’s wider ecosystem, focusing, for instance, on how the
semantic field of “narrative” took shape around keywords such as midrash,
monogatari, xiaoshuo, qis
a—and, why not, romance.
Countless are the novels of the world. We discuss them in two volumes.
Quite a few things will be missing, of course. But this is not Noah’s ark: it is
a collective reflection on the pleasures of storytelling, and their interaction—
at times, complicity—with social power. Now more than ever, pleasure and
critique should not be divided.
PART 1.1
A Struggle
for Space
From Oral to Written: An Anthropological
Breakthrough in Storytelling
The telling of tales is often thought to be characteristic of all human dis-
course, and it is fashionable to speak of narrative as a universal form of ex-
pression, one that is applied both to the life experiences of individuals and
to the dramas of social interaction. Storytelling in oral cultures in turn is
seen as the foundation on which the novel is built in literate ones, and the
activity is regarded as the focus of much creativity. Blind Homer was the
model, putting all his nonliterate imagination into the epic. In discussing
storytelling we are clearly leading into the topics of fiction and the novel.
But not all storytelling is fictional; it can also involve personal narratives.
However, although typically it is associated with oral cultures, with “the
singer [or teller] of tales,”
in his article on the subject, Walter Benjamin sees
the storyteller disappearing with the arrival of the novel, whose dissemina-
tion he associates with the advent of printing, and no longer directly linked
with experience in the same way as before.
The timing of the appearance of the novel is subject to discussion. Mikhail
Baktin uses the term novel (or “novelness”) in a much more extended sense.
But in dealing with origins more concretely, he traces three types: the novel of
“adventure time” back to the Greek romances of the second century
C.E., the
novel of everyday time in the story of The Golden Ass of Apuleius, and the
“chronotope” centered on biographical time, although this does not produce
any novels at this period. All three forms are harbingers of the modern
That is basically a product of the arrival of printing in the late
fifteenth century, but as we see from these early examples, the nature of story-
telling had already radically changed with the coming of writing. Indeed, I
want to argue that, contrary to much received opinion, narrative (already in
1566, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, used for “an account, nar-
ration, a tale, recital”) is not so much a universal feature of the human situa-
tion as one that is promoted by literacy and subsequently by printing.
Lord 1960.
Benjamin 1968a: 87.
Clark and Holquist 1984, chap. 13, “The theory of the novel.” Doody 1997 rejects the
categorical distinction, found only in English, between romance and novel, placing the origin of
the latter in ancient Greece.
Today the word narrative has come to have an iconic, indeed a cant, sig-
nificance in Western literary and social science circles. I suggest a rather dif-
ferent approach, using the term in a much tighter way, implying a plot with a
firm sequential structure, marked by a beginning, a middle, and an end in
the Aristotelian manner. Otherwise, one becomes involved in a kind of ex-
tension similar to that which Derrida has tried to give to writing, in which
term he includes all “traces,” including memory traces. That usage makes it
impossible to make the at times essential distinction between written
archives and memory banks. The same is true for the use of the word litera-
ture for oral genres, what I call standard oral forms, since this usage ob-
scures important analytical differences. Likewise, narrative is sometimes
held to include any vaguely sequential discourse. “What is the narrative?” is
the often heard cry. When I employ the term, I do so in an altogether tighter
sense, as a standard form that has a definite plot that proceeds by structured
Let me take a recent, authoritative example of the wider usage. In his
book, The Political Unconscious (1981), which is subtitled Narrative as a So-
cially Symbolic Act, Fredric Jameson sees his task as attempting to “restruc-
ture the problematics of ideology, of the unconscious and of desire, of repre-
sentation, of history, and of cultural production, around the all-informing
process of narrative, which I take to be the central function or instance
of the human mind.”
There is little one can say about such a terrifyingly in-
clusive aim centered on such an all-embracing concept of the process of nar-
rative. He is not alone in this usage. Some psychologists view storytelling as
a prime mode of cognition; at a recent conference on competences, philoso-
phers proposed the creation of narrative as one of the key competencies of
In attempting to query this and similar assumptions, I want also to tackle
another. In an article on “the narrative structure of reality,” reflecting an-
other all-inclusive use of this term, Stuart Hall remarks, “we make an ab-
solutely too simple and false distinction between narratives about the real
and the narratives of fiction, that is, between news and adventure stories.”
Is that really too simple and false? In my experience the distinction exists, if
not universally, at least transculturally. Indeed, I would suggest it is an in-
trinsic feature of linguistic discourse. How do we know someone is not de-
ceiving us, telling us a fiction, a story, if we make no distinction?
As Orwell observes about Catalonia in his “Looking Back on the Spanish
Jameson 1981: 13.
Southern Review, Adelaide, 17 (1984): 3–17, quoted in Sommerville 1996: 173.
Civil War,” “This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives
me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the
world. After all, the chances are that those lies or at any rate similar lies will
pass into history.”
Whether what we are being told is a fiction or a deliber-
ate lie (implying intentionality), both are departures from the literal truth. It
does not matter to me in this context whether there is philosophical justifi-
cation for objective truth, a correspondence theory of truth. I need only an
acknowledgment of the fact that the actors need to distinguish between
truth and untruth.
It is true that psychology, psychoanalysis, and perhaps sociology too,
have qualified our view of the lie from the standpoint of the individual, in an
attempt to elicit the reasons why people do not tell the truth. But in dyadic
interaction, in social communication between two or more persons, the
question of the truth or untruth of a statement remains critical. Did he or
did he not post the letter I gave him as he claimed? Untruth may not be a lie.
It may also involve fantasy or fiction, fantasy being the latter’s nonrealistic
equivalent. Fantasy does not invite a literal comparison with a truthful ac-
count of events at the surface level. But fiction may do just that, may make a
claim to truth value. That was the difference between romances and novels
in England at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The realistic novels of
Defoe and others deliberately invite an assessment of the truth or otherwise
of the tale. The writers often claim truth for fiction—not the underlying ex-
periential truth but literal, factual truth.
The distinction runs parallel to that commonly made between history and
myth, marked respectively by linear and circular time; the former in effect
requires the availability of documents and hence of writing, but its absence
does not exclude a sense of the past in oral cultures, of which myth is only
one variety of “history,” in the formal meaning of a study based on the ex-
amination of documents. We might wish to qualify this distinction for our
own purposes, but there can be little doubt that it emerged within the ac-
tor’s frame of reference; the Homeric mythos was set apart from historia and
even logos, both of which implied some assessment of truth.
In the absence of writing, communication in oral cultures has to rely
largely on speech. Yet experience in Africa suggests that such discourse
rather rarely consisted in the telling of tales, if by that we mean personal and
fictional stories created for adults. The LoDagaa of northern Ghana cer-
tainly make a distinction of this kind between what I translate as “proper
GOODY From Oral to Written 5
Orwell 1968.
Goody and Watt 1963: 321 ff.
speech” (yil miong) and lies (ziiri), between truth and falsehood. Proper
speech would include what I have translated as “The Myth of the Bagre,”
but that recitation itself raises the question of whether what it offers is a lie
or whether it is God’s way, God’s truth. Folktales are not referred to as lies,
since they make no claim to the truth, but neither are they truth (for exam-
ple, animals speak and behave like humans); as I shall claim, such tales are
largely addressed to children, and they do verge upon the lie in the Platonic
sense, as we see from the account of a LoDagaa writer.
For the problem with fictional narrative emerges from another angle in a
rather imaginative autobiography by a member of this same LoDagaa group,
Malidoma Somé, who claims his people make no distinction between the
natural and supernatural or between reality and the imagined (which I
doubt). Somé is described in his book, Of Water and the Spirit, as “a medi-
cine man and diviner” as well as holding a Ph.D. from Brandeis and giving
lectures at a spiritual center in America. He decides to test the absence of
these distinctions by showing the elders of his African village a videotape of
Star Trek. They interpret the film as portraying “the current affairs in the
day-to-day lives of some other people living in the world I could not
make them understand,” he writes, “that all this was not real. Even though
stories abound in my culture, we have no word for fiction. The only way I
could get across to them the Western concept of fiction was to associate fic-
tion with telling lies.”
That assertion corresponds with my own experience,
at least as far as adults are concerned.
Truthful narratives among the LoDagaa, in my own experience, would be
those relating to one’s own personal life, perhaps accounts of labor migra-
tion to the gold mines in the south of the country or those of local feuds or
wars that happened before the coming of the colonial conquerors early last
century. Stories of this kind are occasionally told, but their place is rather
marginal; narrative and storytelling, even nonfictional, are hardly as central
as is visualized by those seeking to reconstruct the forms of discourse in
early literate culture and supposedly inherited from yet earlier purely oral
The discussions of Derrida, Hall, and Jameson seem to me to represent
the elimination or neglect of historically and analytically useful distinctions
in a misguided, postmodern-influenced drive against “binarism” and toward
holism. In fact the distinctions we have adopted do not threaten the overall
unity of the esprit humain, the human mind, nor do they necessarily embody
a we/they view of the world.
Somé 1994: 8–9.
Turning more specifically to the question of narrative in oral cultures,
there are five aspects I want to look at: legends, epics, myths, folktales, and
finally, personal narratives. The epic is a distinctly narrative form, partly fic-
tional, though often having a basis in heroic deeds on the field of battle. It is
defined as a kind of narrative poetry that celebrates the achievements of
some heroic personage of history or tradition (that is, which may have a
quota of fact). The great scholar of early literature, Hector Chadwick, saw
the epic as the typical product of what he called the Heroic Age, peopled by
chiefs, warriors, and tribesmen (1932–40). Since this genre is usually re-
garded as emerging in preliterate societies, much academic research has
been directed at trying to show that, for example, the Homeric poems, as
epics, were composed in preliterate rather than literate cultures. During the
1930s, the Harvard classical scholars, Milman Parry (1971) and Albert Lord
(1960), made a series of recordings of songs in Yugoslav cafés and aimed to
show that their style, especially in the use of formulaic expressions, made
them representative of epics of the oral tradition. However, Yugoslavia was
by no means a purely oral culture, and its verbal forms were strongly influ-
enced by the presence of writing, and especially of written religions. Some
of the recitations actually appeared as texts in songbooks that were available
to the “singers of tales,” and there was reference back and forth. It is also
the case more generally that the societies of the Heroic Age during which
the epic flourished were ones where early literacy was present. By contrast,
in the purely oral cultures of Africa, the epic is a rarity, except on the south-
ern fringes of the Sahara, which have been much influenced by Islam and by
its literary forms.
Africa south of the Sahara was until recently one of the main areas of the
world where writing was totally absent; that was also the case in recent times
with parts of South America (together with Australasia and the Pacific).
Most of South America was transformed by the Spanish and Portuguese in
the sixteenth century, though a few remote areas escaped their overwhelm-
ing, hegemonic influence. Africa offers the most straightforward case, even
though influenced by the written civilizations of Europe in the West, of the
Mediterranean in the North and of the Arabs in the East. It is also a conti-
nent whose oral literature has received much attention. The main work of
synthesis has been carried out by Ruth Finnegan. On the epic she is very
definite: “Epic is often assumed to be the typical poetic form of non-literate
peoples Surprisingly, however, this does not seem to be borne out by the
African evidence. At least in the more obvious sense of a ‘relatively long nar-
rative poem,’ epic hardly seems to occur in sub-Saharan Africa apart from
forms like the [written] Swahili utenzi which are directly attributable to
GOODY From Oral to Written 7
Arabic literary influence.”
What has been called epic in Africa is often
prose rather than poetry, though some of the lengthy praise poems of South
Africa have something of an epic quality about them. Otherwise most fre-
quently mentioned are the Mongo-Nkundo tales from the Congo; these too
are mainly prose and resemble other African examples in their general fea-
tures. The most famous is the Lianja epic, running to 120 pages of print for
text and translation. It covers the birth and tribulations of the hero, his trav-
els, the leadership of his people, and finally his death. Finnegan suggests that
the original form might have been “a very loosely related bundle of separate
episodes, told on separate occasions and not necessarily thought of as one
single work of art (though recent and sophisticated narrators say that ideally
it should be told at one sitting).”
In other words a similar type of amalga-
mation of short tales may have taken place under the impact of writing, as
apparently occurred with the Gilgamesh epic of Mesopotamia.
We do find some poetry of a legendary kind in the mvet literature of the
Fang peoples of Gabon and the Cameroons, as well as in the recitations of
the griot among the Mande south of the Sahara. She concludes: “In general
terms and apart from Islamic influences, epic seems to be of remarkably lit-
tle significance in African oral literature, and the a priori assumption that
epic is the natural form for many non-literate peoples turns out here to have
little support.”
Since Finnegan’s earlier book, the picture with regard to longer composi-
tions has somewhat changed, both in respect to “mythical” and to “leg-
endary” (including epic) material. As far as longer myths are concerned, we
now have two published versions of the Bagre of the LoDagaa,
the first
consisting of some twelve thousand short lines, and taking some eight hours
to recite. This work is concerned not with the deeds of heroes (as in epics)
but with the creation of the human world, with the position of humankind
in relation to its God and its gods, with problems of philosophy and of life.
It contrasts sharply with the recitation of the griots of Bambara and Mali,
whose products may well have been influenced by Islamic literature. The
griots (the word is in general use) are a type of minstrel belonging to an en-
dogamous castelike group. They mainly perform at the courts of chiefs but
also on other secular, public occasions, for the societies in which they are
found are kingdoms, unlike the acephalous, tribal LoDagaa where praise
Finnegan 1970: 108.
Finnegan 1970: 109.
Finnegan 1970: 110.
Goody 1972; Goody and Gandah 1981; plus a number of unpublished versions.
singing is little developed and legends are no more than migration histories
of the clan or lineage.
Listen to the account of his profession given by the griot Tinguidji, who
was recorded by Seydou:
Nous, le mâbos, nous ne quémandons, qu’auprès des nobles: là où il y a un
noble, j’y suis aussi. Un mâbo ne se préoccupe pas de ce qui n’a pas de
valeur: s’il voit un pauvre et qu’il quémande auprès de lui, s’il le voit dénué
de tout et qu’il le loue, s’il en voit un qui en a l’air et qu’il le loue, un mâbo
qui agit de la sorte, ne vaut rien. Moi, celui qui ne m’est pas superieur, je ne
le loue pas. Celui qui n’est pas plus que moi, je ne le loue pas; je lui donne.
Voilà comment je suis, moi, Tinguidji.
It would be wrong to assume that all the activities of the griots were di-
rected toward pleasing or praising the aristocracy in return for largesse.
There were some who adopted an aggressive attitude toward the world in
general, “griots vulgaires et sans scripules dont le seul dessein est d’extor-
quer cadeaux et faveurs et qui, pour cela, manient avec autant de desinvol-
ture et d’audace la louange et l’insulte le panégyrique dithyrambique et la di-
atribe vindicative, la langue noble et l’argot le plus grossier.”
Apart from
these differences of approach, griots differed in other ways, but all belonged
to the “gens castés,” the nyeenybe, which included smiths, woodcarvers,
leather workers, weavers (who are also singers, the mâbo). These minstrels,
“artisans du verbe et de l’art musical,” included the following:
the intellectuel-griots who have studied the Qur’an
the awlube, or drummers, who are attached to a particular family whose
history, genealogy, and praises they sing
the jeeli of Mandingo origin, who play many instruments, are unattached,
and make their living by their profession
the nyemakala, wandering singers and guitarists who organize evening
The intellectuel-griots were those who studied the Qur’an, giving support to
Finnegan’s point about Islamic influences. The bulk of the epics in Africa
GOODY From Oral to Written 9
Goody 1977.
Seydou 1972: 13–14.
Seydou 1972: 15.
Seydou 1972: 17–20.
are found on the fringes of the Sahara where such influences are strong and
of long duration. The Fulani epic of Silâmaka and Poullôri recounts the
story of a chief ’s son and his slave together with a companion who attempt
to relieve their country of its debt of tribute. It is an epic of chiefship recited
within a culture that was linked to the written tradition of Islam; A H. Bâ
has described the society of that time as village-based, with each village
headed by a man who was literate in Arabic,
but in any case, the language
and its literature were known throughout the towns of the region, influenc-
ing the nature of local life and thought, especially its artistic forms as well as
its history.
Under these conditions, narrative recitations of an epic kind appear. The
model is provided by Islamic tradition; they are found in complex chief-
doms, the rulers of which are served by professionals of various kinds, in-
cluding praise singers. Being focused on the past deeds of the chiefly ances-
tors (the history of the state), such songs take upon themselves a narrative
format, recounting struggles of heroes of earlier times.
It should be pointed out that the content of this Fulani epic was “fixed”
in certain broad features but varied enormously in its telling. Seydou de-
scribes how the legend crossed frontiers and was spread by the mouths of
griots who, “chacun à sa guise et selon son art propre, l’ont enrichi, trans-
formé, remanié à partir d’élements divers empruntés à d’autres récits. So the
epic ended up as “une veritable geste dont il serait fort instructif de recon-
stituer le cycle complet, tant dans la littérature bambara que dans le peu-
ple,” that is, in Fulani.
As a result we find a great number and variety of
that develop one particular episode and exalt this or that hero, be-
cause it is recited for both the contending parties in the struggle, the Fulani
and the Bambara. Each time the griots are playing to a specific but varying
audience. They live by the responses of that audience; they travel, play the
lute, and change their story to fit the community in which they are working.
In other words, while the Fulani epic, like the epic in general, seems to oc-
cur in a society influenced by writing, the form it takes varies considerably
depending on the bard, the time, the situation. Such variants should not to
my mind be regarded as part of a definitive cycle, for that exists only when
inventiveness has stropped and the epic has been circumscribed in text, but
rather as part of an expanding universe around a narrative theme.
Seydou 1972: 81.
Hiskett 1957; Wilks 1963; Hodgkin 1966.
Seydou 1972: 9–10.
For example, Veillard 1931; Bâ and Kesteloot 1969.
Both Finnegan (1992) and Tedlock (1983) reject the proposition that the
epic is characteristically a feature of purely oral cultures and associate it with
the early literate cultures of the Old World. Finnegan works mainly on
Africa, Tedlock on the Americas. The latter concludes that the only “epic
texts with long metrical runs come from folk traditions within larger literate
However, in commenting on these conclusions, Rumsey claims
that recitations found among a group of neighboring societies in the New
Guinea Highlands do constitute “an oral epic tradition.” The examples he
gives have a strong narrative content and are marked by formulaic repetition
of the kind to which Parry and Lord draw attention in their analysis of
Yugoslavian songs. He discusses two kinds of story, kange and temari, which
have been assimilated to the European distinction between “fiction” and
but which others have seen as having more to do with the distinc-
tion between the world of narrated events and the here-now world from
which they are being narrated.
Nevertheless, some kind of “truth value”
does seem to be involved. Kange tend to be told indoors, at night, after the
evening meal. A single individual holds the floor for ten to twenty minutes,
and there is a turn-taking rule with a “ratified speaker.” Some stories are
told by women but to children rather than to the world at large.
Rumsey compares these tales to European epics. But while they are cer-
tainly narrative and many have a central heroic character, they are short
recitations, mostly running between three hundred and seven hundred lines
in length. It is not part of my intent to deny the presence of fictional narrative
in oral cultures, merely to say that long narratives are rare and any narrative
at all less frequent than has often been thought, because I would suggest, of
the inherent problems of fiction. The fact that Rumsey finds (short) epics in
the New Guinea Highlands and that Finnegan denies them for black Africa
and Tedlock for the Americas in itself raises a problem of presence and ab-
sence. Why should such a problem exist at all? Why are epics, defined by
Tedlock as “a heroic narrative with a metrical, sung text,”
relatively rare in
oral cultures? Why do narratives, especially fictional ones, not dominate the
discourse of oral cultures, especially in artistic genres, in the way that much
contemporary theory about storytelling requires? I am referring here not
only to long, substantial recitations. The so-called epics from the New
Guinea Highlands are quite short and involve a single speaker holding the
GOODY From Oral to Written 11
Tedlock 1983: 8.
Rumsey forthcoming.
Merlan 1995.
Tedlock 1983: 8.
floor for ten or twenty minutes. Even if we were to see these tales as epics
(and they are certainly narrative), we have a problem of presence and ab-
sence that needs to be faced beyond saying that this distribution is “cul-
tural.” That is a question to which I will return later.
What about other forms of narrative, of storytelling? Legends are often
linked to epics, but do not take the same metrical form. Despite their pre-
sumed association with the written word (legenda, what is read) and their
connection with written saints tales and the like, they are also found in oral
cultures—in tribal ones in the form of clan histories, and in chiefdoms in the
form of dynastic ones. In the latter case they are often much more fragmen-
tary than is often thought; in some cases the state histories take the form of
drum titles for chiefs and of chronicles rather than narratives in a stronger
Once again myths, which are perhaps the most studied genre, are too
often assumed to be universal. Mythologies are (in the sense of universal
constructions of a supernatural order) but myths in the sense of long, super-
naturally oriented recitations, of the type recorded for the Zuni of North
America or the Bagre of the LoDagaa, which take hours to recite, are very
unevenly distributed and much less narrative in form, however, than the
early Hindu Mahabratta or even the Gilgamesh “epic” of Mesopotamia
(both creations of literate cultures) would lead us to suppose. Myths are
standard oral forms; mythologies are bodies of beliefs in the supernatural
derived from a multiplicity of sources and reconstructed by the observer, as
in the case of the Mythologiques of Claude Lévi-Strauss.
Myth does a number of different things. It has some narrative element.
But the importance of that has been greatly exaggerated by the collectors of
myths (and mythologies), who have asked their respondents for stories and
not cared much about the philosophical, theological, and wisdom aspects of
the recitation. That is an error that has led in the past, before the portable
tape recorder, to considerable misconceptions. At one level I would liken
the Bagre to the Bible in the number of tasks it performs. There is the etio-
logical narrative in Genesis, the “wisdom” of Proverbs, and the ritual pre-
scriptions of Leviticus. But there is not a sequential narrative or even conti-
nuity running throughout. Hartman (1999) writes not only of its uniqueness
but of its unity. Every piece of writing is at some level unique, but that is not
I think what is being said. In any case, unity is not the obvious characteristic;
books have been aggregated together as a canon almost haphazardly; the
unity is given by the ritual context, not by the text.
Lévi-Strauss 1969.
What I have called “the Myth of the Bagre” found among the LoDagaa of
northern Ghana will serve as an example. It concerns serious supernatural af-
fairs, falling under the category of “proper speech,” and it is associated with
membership in the Bagre society, which is held to confer medical (and in a
sense spiritual) benefits. This long recitation takes six to eight hours to per-
form in the accepted fashion, with each phrase (or “line” in my transcription)
being repeated by the audience of neophytes and members (their guides),
and then the whole process is repeated twice yet again by other Speakers. The
time taken varies with the Speaker and the degree of elaboration he employs,
as well as with the point in the ceremony at which the recitation takes place.
It consists of two parts, the White and the Black. The first is an account of the
different ceremonies that are held over several weeks, and it is recited up to
the point in the sequence that has been reached. The Black, on the other
hand, is intended only for the ears of those men (women are now excluded)
who have passed through the first initiation and includes some account of
how mankind was created (and how he learned to create himself ) as well as
how he came to acquire the basic elements of his culture, that is, farming,
hunting, the raising of livestock, the making of iron, and the brewing of beer.
This is “proper speech” because it concerns man’s relationship with the
supernatural, especially with the beings of the wild who act as intermedi-
aries, sometimes mischievous, between man and God. And while the out-
sider may look upon the recitation as “myth,” as an imaginative expression
of man’s relationship with the world and with the divine, for the LoDagaa it
is real enough, even though the possibility that it is false is often raised. In-
deed, the salvation against trouble, including death itself, that the Bagre
medicine offers to new initiates is subsequently shown in the Black Bagre to
be an illusion; hopes are raised, only later to be crushed.
However, the point that I want to make here is that, leaving aside the
question of fiction, of truth or falsehood, the narrative content of the recita-
tion is limited. A certain framework is provided for the White Bagre, the ac-
count of the ceremonies, which explains how the Bagre was started after
consultation with a diviner following a series of troubles adjudged to have
divine origins. There is obviously a sequence in the account of the cere-
monies and of their associated prohibitions and injunctions. But this hardly
takes a narrative form. What we do find, on three or four occasions, is short
narratives, resembling folktales, embedded in the recitation at certain points
in the context of a particular ceremony. Denys Page has remarked upon sim-
ilar modules embedded in the Homeric poems.
These tales do assume a
GOODY From Oral to Written 13
Page 1973.
definitive narrative form, with a beginning, middle, and an end. They also
seem to require a different commitment regarding ‘belief ’ than the bulk of
the recitation.
The Black Bagre begins in a more promising manner as far as narrative is
concerned. The elder of two “brothers” experiences troubles that he attrib-
utes to mystical causes. He consults a diviner to find out which ones. As a re-
sult, he sets out on a long and arduous journey, which takes him to the
Other World. Coming across a river, probably that separating this world
from the other, he meets an old man, probably the High God, and with the
aid of the spider, climbs up to Heaven (to “God’s country”). There he meets
“a slender young girl” and the High God shows them how a child is created
in a mystical way. The recitation continues at length with the man and
woman quarrelling about the ownership of the male child and his education.
Meanwhile they are introduced, with the aid of the beings of the wild
(“fairies”), to various aspects of LoDagaa culture, to the making of iron, the
cultivation of crops, the brewing of beer, and eventually to the procreation,
rather than the creation, of children. While a loose narrative frame exists,
the greater part of the recitation concerns the description of central aspects
of culture, especially its technological processes. And much of the rest deals
with philosophical problems (like the problem of evil) and theological ones
(like the relationship between the High God and the beings of the wild).
Narrativity is not the dominant characteristic. And even these long recita-
tions, myths, are very unevenly distributed. The LoDagaa have them; none
of their neighbors apparently do.
What does seem to be universal, at least in the Old World, are folktales.
We find these everywhere, often in a surprisingly similar form—short tales,
sometimes followed by an inconsequential tail or end, involving as actors
humans, animals, and often gods. We may think of the Akan Ananse stories
(with the Spider as trickster) as prototypical, together with their Caribbean
variants, the Nancy tales of Brer Rabbit.
Those tales have been taken by some observers as representative of prim-
itive thought. Frequently they are envisaged as being told around the eve-
ning fire to a mixed audience. My own experience in West Africa is rather
different. Such stories, like those in the works of the brothers Grimm, are
mainly aimed at children and do not represent the thought of adults in oral
cultures. By far the greater part are short folktales (fairy tales) of the kind
told to children, not the fare of ordinary adult consumption. They represent
primitive mentality only to the extent that “Jack and the Beanstalk” in
Europe today can be held to represent contemporary modernity. They are
set aside as children’s discourse. Indeed, fiction generally is for the young;

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